By Jolon Clark, Denver City Council District 7
Development, densification, traffic, parking and the demolition of structures in neighborhoods and along main street commercial districts like Old South Pearl Street has caused a lot of friction as Denver continues to grow at a faster rate than almost any other major city in the United States. Few things have brought the need to make sure that we are handling this growth responsibly into as clear a focus as the debate that is raging around a piece of the Denver Zoning code that few people have ever heard of. With a moratorium that was put into place by a unanimous vote of the Denver City Council set to expire at the end of March, the Small Lot Parking Exemption is once again in the spotlight as we struggle to define who we are as a city, who we want to be, and how we get there.
In 2006, the intention of the Small Lot Parking Exemption, which allows for lots 6,250 square feet or less to be developed with zero parking spaces provided, was to catalyze business on small retail and commercial parcels along major arterials such as Colfax Avenue and Broadway, where there were empty store fronts and there was a real threat of a loss of neighborhood character by small lots being assembled. Since implementation of the exemption in 2010 and on Sept. 1 2014, there were 1,604 building permits issued on small lots in mixed use districts. The vast majority of permits using the small lot exemption were for reinvestment and rehabilitation of existing structures. Only six permits were for new construction of non-single family residential structures, and only one used the exemption.
In recent years, micro apartment development has made its way to Denver. With multiple applications suddenly submitted to the city for micro apartments on small lots, neighbors and City Council took notice. Building on these small lots with more than 50 residential units was never intended or envisioned when the Exemption was initially created, but it provided a loophole for this new kind of development, with significant impacts on the neighborhoods into which they were being proposed to be built. Armed with no tools to address these impacts, citizens came together to ask City Council to do something, and Council voted unanimously for a moratorium on the Exemption until a better plan to address the impacts on neighborhoods could be developed.
When the moratorium was put in place, a committee was formed to provide a recommendation for what to do. The final recommendation was opposed by all four neighborhood representatives on the committee but is moving its way through City Council anyway. Under the new recommendations, nothing would change in places like South Pearl Street and most of Broadway. Even for development over three stories and not on an identified transit corridor, the changes are still nowhere near adequate.
The project garnering the most attention leading up to the moratorium is a project at 16th Avenue and Humboldt Street proposing 54 residential units on one 6,250 foot lot. For reference, a 6,250 lot fits one single family home in Wash Park and two in Baker. The same developers submitted a second project with another 54 units on an adjacent 6,250 foot lot. Because of how the Small Lot Parking Exemption is written, the developers do not need to agree to anything that would reduce parking demand or car ownership.
According to the 2010 census, 73 percent of Denver residents commute to work every day in a single occupancy vehicle, and only 11.9 percent of households have no car. In Portland, Oregon, a recent city survey of apartment buildings that do not have parking found that 72 percent of the tenants still owned cars. Without the Small Lot Parking Exemption, Denver already provides incentives that would have allowed the 16th and Humboldt project to only provide 26 parking spots, while 78 people would likely own a car. The Small Lot Parking Exemption makes the parking requirement zero. The changes that have been proposed would only require 10 spots being built for this development.
The real problem is we are using the wrong tool to try to solve a problem that we desperately need to solve. Denver is in dire need of a comprehensive plan to address transportation needs during a time of unprecedented growth while not letting this new development destroy what we all love about our neighborhoods. The unintended consequences of the Small Lot Parking Exemption were bad for Denver; the proposed changes aren’t much better. Time is running out on the moratorium, and we need to extend it until we can find a solution that addresses these challenges head on while creating the tools we need to ensure this growth doesn’t come with more cars that we can’t fit on our roads.
How do we get there? First, we need to preserve the parts of the Small Lot Parking Exemption that are working and doing what they were intended to do. These parts enliven empty storefronts, preserve the main street character of our neighborhood commercial districts and allow for investment and rehabilitation of existing structures. Second, we need to close the loophole. The exemption—even with the proposed changes—does not provide any tools for neighbors or the city to adequately deal with the impact of this development and the cars that come with it. Finally, we need a new tool. There are ways to build 108 units and actually prohibit residents from having cars. Transportation Demand Management ordinances are proving to be successful in reducing car ownership and increasing mode shift because—unlike the Small Lot Parking Exemption—they are tools that are built from the ground up to address these issues.
Reductions in parking requirements have to be tied to real reductions in car ownership on lots big and small. We need a tool that allows us to manage the growth that we are facing while reducing car ownership and miles driven, not an exemption that provides developers a way to build zero parking spots, while making zero effort to ensure that their residents won’t have cars.